Nowadays, RAM is arguably a more reliable indicator of a smartphone’s performance than CPU specs. Why? Nobody can really understand processors. Walk in a store, and you’ll find a phone with a dual-core chip that supposedly outperforms another with an octa-core CPU.
Of course, the situation is a lot more nuanced than that, but if you want to be sure the gadget you get will be fully capable of handling your everyday needs without breaking a sweat, keep a keen eye on the amount of RAM specified.
The purpose of RAM on a phone
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is a memory chip, where any data stored can be accessed directly. Just like with a computer, RAM stores the data a phone is currently using. This way, the CPU can work much faster than it would if it had to retrieve data from the phone’s slower secondary storage.
RAM is what enables a smartphone to multitask. Multitasking is essential for smooth functionality because it lets you move from app to app, without having to start from scratch every time.
A phone with barely enough RAM for basic operation will, therefore, be pretty irritating to use. Even turning the display off while using an application and then turning it back on a few seconds later will require you to wait just as long as you did when you first launched the app.
RAM utilization: Android vs. iOS
The general speed of a phone relies on how much RAM there is to store data from many running applications without encroaching on the memory the OS needs. Very limited RAM is often the cause of many performance issues, regardless of a smartphone’s platform.
Nonetheless, Android smartphones are known to need more RAM than iPhones. Experts attribute this inefficiency to an application management system where Android keeps as many apps as possible running actively in the background, unless they’re “force stopped” in app settings.
This approach makes the OS more friendly for developers because they can design their apps to take full advantage of the system even when running in the background. However, unless the phone has sufficient RAM, stutters and lags will be experienced from time to time, and the user has to close some apps manually for a smoother experience
An iPhone, on the other hand, keeps an application that’s not in use in an inactive state, and when a user goes back to it, the phone relies on the processor to make the application active as quickly as possible.
An app that’s in immediate use, therefore, has more RAM at its disposal. Moreover, always-active fundamental features such as the UI and the notifications manager have the memory they need to run seamlessly at all times.
The active-inactive switching of apps, therefore, makes iOS comfortable with less RAM than Android. It also makes iPhones more power efficient, because fewer applications are active at a time. This is one of the reasons why the iPhone 7 can get away with a 1960mAh battery, while its rivals pack 3000mAh and above.
How much RAM is enough?
Now that we have established the differences in RAM management across the two major smartphone platforms, it’s clear that the numbers mean more to Android than iOS.
Google’s current minimum requirement to run its 64-Bit Android OS on a phone is 832MB RAM. In other words, for your Android gadget to work and for basic features to load up, that is the amount you’ll need. Evidently, a phone with 1GB or 1.5GB of RAM will barely have enough for light to moderate multitasking.
Therefore, our recommended minimum specification for an Android smartphone is 2GB, with which even RAM hogs like Facebook will have enough to run without jitters. Of course, if you have an iPhone, the 1GB official requirement for iOS 10 is just enough.
The upper limit
Currently, major brands seem to have established 4GB as the standard RAM size for an Android flagship. This amount has been consistent across the best smartphones on the market, although though many budget smartphones offer 2GB or less.
And thanks to last year’s performance champions like the Galaxy S7 and the LG G5, 4GB has proven to be just the right amount, perfectly complementing the high-end processors in these top-range phones.
That said, the question amongst smartphone reviewers now is whether this “standard” will see a rise this year. While more than 4GB RAM is exciting, manufacturers will have to balance the benefits of keeping many apps running in active memory with the power efficiency that comes with closing them down completely.
With more RAM comes more space for background processes and a higher demand on the battery. Take the OnePlus 3, for example. It has a 6GB module, pleasantly outdoing other big-name phones.
But when you actively use the phone, you’ll realize that it has a power-saving memory handling system that never seems to let background apps accumulate beyond the 4GB mark. Most of the time, the extra 2GB ends up as “emergency space” and is otherwise just sitting there, contributing little to the phone’s overall performance.
Having a lot of RAM is good, but as long as your phone has efficient memory management, you really don’t need as much as you might think. At the moment, therefore, 4GB seems the appropriate upper limit.
Although OnePlus probably decided to go above the competition with more RAM to earn bragging rights, the extra space may become relevant soon.
The demand for RAM is not slowing down. With every OS release, both Google and Apple have been upping their recommended RAM specs to cater for additional features. The 4GB upper RAM limit will, therefore, see an increase sooner or later.
A good indication of this growing need is multi-window multitasking in Android Nougat. Custom UIs have been letting you run apps side by side for a while, but the feature is now native to stock Android. Consequently, Nougat needs more RAM than previous versions.
Abundant RAM always spices up a phone’s specs sheet, but currently, there’s no need for the exorbitant numbers. Buying a more expensive smartphone because it has more than 4GB, therefore, makes little sense. Nevertheless, if you’re gearing up for a more RAM-greedy future, then, by all means, go ahead!